From the Prime Minister's spokesperson on: Al Megrahi, Big Society and Bill of Rights.
Asked why documents were being released by the Cabinet Secretary, the Prime Minister’s Spokesman (PMS) told the assembled press that the Prime Minister asked the Cabinet Secretary to review the circumstances surrounding the release of Al Megrahi and the Government’s role in that process.
Asked if the Prime Minister’s statement would look to be judgemental over the decisions made by the previous Government or would it be a laying out of the facts, the PMS replied that people would have to wait for the Prime Minister’s statement.
The Cabinet Secretary was asked to carry out a specific review of the record, held by the Government.
On whether the Cabinet Secretary had been given specific guidance from the Prime Minister on what he expected to see in the report, the PMS said that the remit given by the Prime Minister was to look back at the decision that was taken and the circumstances surrounding that decision.
Asked if there had been any consultation with former Ministers, the PMS said that that was the normal process. Asked if there had been consultation with Scottish Ministers, the PMS advised people to speak to the Cabinet Office on the exact process.
When asked if former officials had been consulted, specifically Mark Allen, the PMS said he did not know, but to check with the Cabinet Office on the process.
Asked what had led the Prime Minister to ask for this review, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister had announced the review in the United States last year. While in opposition he had made it clear that he did not agree with the decision.
On whether all documents relating to the case would be released, the PMS advised people to wait and see. This followed a review conducted by the Cabinet Secretary; he had a remit and he was fulfilling that.
Asked if the Prime Minister was involved in the decision as to which documents got published, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister was not allowed to see the documents of previous Governments, which was why the Cabinet Secretary was conducting this process.
Put that today’s exercise breached the principle of Ministers not being given access to the documents of previous administrations, the PMS cited the Iraq Inquiry and explained that releasing material from previous Governments did happen. The PMS added that documents were often released following a review, an inquiry, or after an FOI request. There was a process that had to be adhered to and this was in line with that process.
Asked whether it was true for all Ministers that they could not see the documents of the previous administration, the PMS said it was; Ministers could ask officials to advise them, but could not be given access to past documents.
Put that it was unusual for documents of a previous administration to be released, the PMS said it did not happen on a regular basis, but it occurred more regularly since the introduction of the FOI Act.
Asked if it was a good idea to introduce the Big Society at a time of austerity, the PMS replied that a lot of the issues in reports related to local authority funding.
Three points were worth making:
First, local Government spending accounted for a quarter of all spending and at a time where we had a significant deficit we had to look hard at local Government spending as well as central Government spending.
Second, local authorities should be looking at efficiencies rather than going straight to contracts with external organisations and cutting them. We had raised the issue of pay, as well as the issue of accommodation and buildings where significant savings were possible. Birmingham Council would be cutting the number of buildings they used from 55 to eight for instance.
Third, over time there would be significant opportunities for voluntary organisations to provide public services. This would take some time, but we wanted to see a greater role for voluntary organisations for example in the rehabilitation of drug users and prisoners for example.
Put that local authorities were cutting external organisations and could the Government do anything to stop that, the PMS said that we could demonstrate ways in which efficiencies could be made, such as Birmingham Council cutting the number of buildings being used. The PMS said we could also generate more transparency so people could see where local authorities were spending their money and hold them to account.
Asked whether the Government was prepared to admit that it was not an ideal time to launch the Big Society, the PMS replied that it would take some time for these changes to happen. The argument remained that if you had one of the largest deficits in the world, it would need to be addressed. The Government had decided to address that by cutting public spending in certain areas, but a cut in public spending did not automatically mean a cut in services.
Put that the Big Society was being delayed, the PMS said that in the future, we would see a different relationship between individuals, voluntary groups and the state, and that change would not happen overnight, nor was it ever expected to.
Bill of Rights
Asked why a Commission on a Bill of Rights had not been set up, the PMS said that it would be set up. In nine months, the Government had introduced a wide range of policies; this was one thing that it would turn its attention to soon.
On whether the Prime Minister was happy with the European Court of Human Rights, the PMS said that on the issue of prisoner voting for example, the Prime Minister had mad clear he was not happy with the present situation.
Put that the Policy Exchange had said that it would be feasible for the Government to ignore the ruling on prisoner voting, the PMS replied that there would be a vote on the motion later this week and we were looking very hard at the legal advice.
Asked if the vote was being whipped and would Ministers vote, the PMS replied that he thought Ministers would abstain.
Asked if backbench motions were binding on Government, the PMS said that it was Parliament expressing a view and we would take account of what Parliament said.